Focused on faith and woven with Christian, ecumenical, and patriotic themes, Our Immigrants’ Son is an exploration and celebration of family.
The genres of prose poetry and historical fiction very cleverly takes you through the author’s rich Irish American history. It begins in misty Ireland and takes you through generations of the Murphy clan while also teaching you how to write your family story.
The storyteller is US Navy Captain, John Francis Patrick Murphy, Retired, a direct descendant of those past Murphys whose lives he, with his family and a team of researchers and historians, documented in both the factual sense as well as adding artistic license to make this history a rich and emotional journey.
Our Immigrant’s Son opens in 1845 with ancestor Michael Joseph Murphy’s parents, Patrick and Mary, undertaking a dangerous ocean voyage across the Atlantic to a new land. It then follows and documents Michael’s journey from birth, to Civil War private at age sixteen, to Lawrence police chief and beyond.
This riveting story is the tale of all immigrant families, regardless of nationality, race, ethnicity, heritage, or culture. It reveals the undeniable truth that immigrants are our past, present, and future. It affirms that those who come to our shores to join us and aspire to our best ideals are courageous, noble, and visionary.
Part two of this book follows the author’s carefully outlined research, step-by-step writing strategies, and his use of history as a touchstone. Our Immigrants’ Son invites you to join Captain Murphy on a journey to write your own family story and share it with those you love.
Our epic poem about my paternal great-grandfather—Michael Joseph Murphy (1848-1931)—can only begin in April 1845 with his parents, Patrick and Mary, and their decision to travel from County Waterford, Ireland to Boston, Massachusetts. They were a young unmarried couple. In tellin’ me Irish-American tale, “it is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.”
Patrick Murphy (1823-1890) and Mary Heffernan (1821-1896) were devout Irish Roman Catholics. They were the patriarch and matriarch of my family, my progenitors, the beginning of our American begats, and Our Immigrants for this story.
I’ve titled the first chapter, “An Cinneadh,” which, when translated from the Irish, means “The Decision.” It is a standalone and self-contained prose poem I wrote years ago and have now incorporated into the first chapter of this book.
“An Cinneadh” tells the story of my paternal great-great-grandparents, twenty-three-year-old Mary and twenty-two-year-old Patrick, on a May day in 1845 when they started their ocean voyage to America.
Once they settled in Boston and married, Mary bore Patrick seven children. One of these children was Michael Joseph Murphy, the eldest son, and the second-eldest sibling, younger only than his sister Elizabeth (1846-1910). He is the son in Our Immigrants’ Son.
To tell Michael’s story, we must start by telling the tale of the Irish clan and how it all began with one incredibly gutsy and painful decision to leave Ireland forever.
Many of the family named in this poem are shown below in a family tree, perhaps better called a “family spaghetti plate,” given its design. You may find it helpful in your own work; on a single page, it includes seven generations and fifty people, which is hard to do with a traditional ancestry tree.
The “spaghetti plate” below and another one in chapter IX are an abbreviated Murphy-Heffernan and Murphy-Reardon ancestry that focuses on the central characters mentioned in this story and their relationship to each other, either by consanguinity or marriage.
Throughout the story, I refer to my grandfather as John 1 (he is Michael J. Murphy’s eldest child), my father as John 2 (Michael’s grandson), and I refer to myself as John 3 (Michael’s great-grandson). The major family members’ names are in bold. I hope this helps orient the reader.
It may be useful to refer back to this “spaghetti” and take a “bite” during your reading.
Saolaíodh Patrick Murphy agus Mary Heffernan in Éirinn. Sa bhliain 1845 thug an bheirt acu aghaidh ar shaol nua éiginnte, i dteannta a chéile. Ní raibh acu ach an dóchas, agus chreideadar go raibh saol níos fearr rompu. Ní raibh tuiscint iomlán acu ar an domhan nua, ach bheartaíodar gurb í a n-aisling bheith ina Meiriceánaigh. B’fhéidir nach raibh acu ach cúpla léaráid, alt nuachtáin, nó iris i dtaobh na tíre nua. B’fhéidir gur sméid litir ó dhuine a bhí dulta sall le déanaí, orthu…
In 1845, Irish-born Patrick Murphy and Mary Heffernan—together—ventured into a new and uncertain world with only the hope and belief that a better life awaited them. Without a full understanding of the New World, and perhaps only with a few sketches or newspaper articles, they decided to become Americans. Likely a letter from a new arrival—with important news—beckoned.
They departed Ireland, still unmarried, but certainly in love. Perhaps they held close to a memory of a place now remembered only through the mists of time.
Imagine their deep emotions as they made their first brave steps forward: grief at leaving home, but a determination that overcame doubts. Clear-eyed, they faced an uncertain future rushing toward them faster than ocean storm clouds.
Most of all, they had trust and faith in God. God would see them through to their new life. They held tight to God’s hand throughout.
On that morning in May, they stepped aboard a nineteenth-century packet ship, the Sweden. But much more than that—they stepped into a new arena.
The North Atlantic’s waves and winds were strong. Wood beams creaked. The smell of sickness hung in the salty air with so many destinies packed in tight. Shipwrecks loomed beneath the deep ocean. But also aboard, there was song—Irish song. Folk dance. Long Irish yarns spun all night and into the morn.
Leaving meant cutting ties with an old order. Embracing a new order. It meant leaving a homeland and its familiar surroundings, leaving the old storytellers for the new, leaving family, and leaving a local church. But as County Waterford grew more distant, they also hoped to leave hardship. And death.
They had each other, their faith, and not much else. They sailed on—creating the ocean’s history.
The Ireland they left behind now existed only in their hearts. Hard work lay ahead—work that would age the young—but the two of them clung to their unshakable belief they were making the right decision. Their plan was never to return, and they never did. Neither did their children. They and their posterity would become Americans despite confronting ardent and pervasive discrimination. How incredibly brave!
Patrick and Mary found joy—no, together, they made joy.
As fate would have it, this young couple left Ireland just before the Great Hunger’s scourge. What a momentous decision. They left because of wrongs done to them and to Ireland and because of episodic blight, but they brought forth a better, beautiful life, wrought by their hands’ work and their lifelong love, even while Ireland certainly lived in them. They never stopped loving Ireland.
Together, they have now stepped in with the angels. Their decision, if not made, would mean that we, their Irish-American descendants, would not exist.
Patrick and Mary made that decision.
Patrick’s mother’s maiden name may have been “Leane.” Was the “Mary Lyons” listed above somehow related to Patrick’s mother’s family with the surname “Leane” recorded as “Lyons” on this manifest? But then what about twenty-three-year-old Mary Sullivan? Is that another family member, a friend, or a stranger? Such questions show that family history is often opaque, and our efforts to “paint” it are impressionistic.
What’s more, Patrick and Mary’s listed ages on the manifest, twenty-three and twenty-five, are not likely accurate considering their Irish birth or baptismal certificates, which say that Patrick Murphy was “born or baptized” on March 24, 1823, and Mary Heffernan was “baptized” on September 16, 1821, shortly after her birth. At the time of Sweden’s arrival in Boston, this means Patrick’s real age would be about twenty-two, while Mary’s real age would have been about twenty-three. Their reason for possibly concealing their true age is unknown.
Particularly note the Sweden manifest listed “Mary Heffran,” deviating from what we believe was the correct “Heffernan.” And yet Mary and Patrick’s December 6, 1845 Boston marriage record also incorrectly listed her last name as “Heffran.” (See Chapter VI).
Family lore is that Mary’s family name has always been Heffernan (or perhaps generations earlier, O’Heffernan). Mary’s baptismal certificate listed her name as Heffernan, and her father’s grave in Lynn, Massachusetts, listed his name as John Heffernan. (See Chapter IV).
Nineteenth-century ship manifests—as well as records of all kind—were often hurriedly put together, and the writer would take the best-guess approach on spelling. Alternatively, perhaps Mary deliberately provided a different spelling of her last name (accompanied by her wrong age) for some unknown but calculated reason.
Whatever the truth regarding Mary’s maiden name, these variations of it remain a mystery that will likely never be solved. But every family needs at least one good conspiracy theory, right?
It is of note that the nineteenth-century immigrant community routinely swapped names and falsified documents to evade certain laws. Falsification of documents served several important purposes, including influencing citizenship status, concealing a past, beefing up job experience, meeting age requirements for certain types of employment, or even to make sure that a ship’s captain would not deny boarding due to reasons of age.
Twenty years later, Patrick and Mary’s son, Michael, would list his age as three years older than his true age, making yet another life-altering cinneadh.
I say again, much like my prose poetry, my family knew when it was right for them to break the rules.
Using all these historical records, we can trace the movement of the Sweden departing Liverpool (likely in early May of 1845, and perhaps on May 1, after our couple left Waterford for Liverpool in April) and sailing about thirty-four days to Boston where Patrick and Mary disembarked on June 4, 1845. The Sweden then left Boston on July 5, 1845, and arrived in New Orleans on August 19, 1845, pulling pier-side near my business office today.
The short and tragic 1848 voyage of the Ocean Monarch provides a stark example of Patrick and Mary’s willingness to boldly face grave danger. The Ocean Monarch sailed three years after Mary and Patrick traveled to America, and charted the same route as ship Sweden in its voyage from Liverpool to Boston. The Murphys might have known people on that ship—friends or relatives who planned to travel to meet them.
Within hours of the Ocean Monarch departing Liverpool, someone below deck either lit an unauthorized fire in a ventilator or carelessly left an unattended candle, a mistake that quickly engulfed the ship in flames. Frantic efforts to douse the flames failed. All on board had to make the dreadful choice between taking the flames or jumping into the sea, where many could not swim.
Of the approximately three hundred and sixty trembling and frightened immigrants on board, nearly two hundred perished in a blaze while dreaming of Boston.
The ship burned all the way down to the waterline, and the wreck smoldered for an entire day. If Mary and Patrick’s timing had been different, they could have been on that ship. That might have been the end of our story.
Nearly one in ten travelers died during the voyage to the new land or shortly thereafter. The frightful end to immigrants’ lives came primarily from pandemic disease and shipwreck. About one packet ship in six faced complete destruction in service.
Watery burials on the high seas were a common ritual, a consignment of the lost to an ocean grave. From the sides of rolling ships, family and friends watched their beloved departed slip beneath the waves. Those watching must have wondered, “What might have been?”
One old Irish poem told of a mother who jumped from a ship into the sea after her dead child. The stoic captain sailed on.
On these ships and in these waters, the Irish believed in Christian theophany, and they personally experienced visions of their holy God. At the same time, they also believed in old Irish notions of magic, ghosts, fairies (including fiendish Irish fairies), the Banshee, lucky numbers three and seven, good and bad omens, and the “Irish Curse of the Seven Snotty Orphans.” These things were not superstition to the Irish. All of it was real, especially on the water where creatures of the deep followed in the wake of the immigrants.
Between 1845 and 1851, about fifty ships foundered while heading to North America. Gales, fog, ice fields, lightning strikes, collisions, fires, reefs, rocky shores, and jagged shoals were unforgiving to the packet ship trade.
Packet ship captains—or “masters” in the commercial ship trade—drove these ships to the limit in pursuit of their lucrative enterprise of cargo and passengers.
Travelers needed bottomless optimism to face these risks.
In 1844, just months before Patrick and Mary’s voyage, they may have heard that packets England and United States “went missing” after leaving Liverpool for America. Neither ship was ever heard from again. And years earlier, in 1840, Poland, another packet ship, was sailing from New York to Le Havre, France, when lightning struck its foremast. That single flash lit up two hundred and seventy bales of cotton in Poland’s cargo hold and immediately started an inferno.
Fortunately, another packet ship, Clifton, was in the vicinity. Poland’s captain, Captain Anthony, was able to transfer all of his passengers and crew onto lifeboats, taking them to the rescue ship. He was not, however, able to provide mercy to the Poland’s cow, which could not fit on a lifeboat. He had planned to go back and shoot the poor creature when all human souls were off the ship, but time quickly ran out.
Once rescued, Poland’s passengers watched from the safety of the Clifton as Poland slowly burned in the distance. The tragic bellowing of the cow could be heard in the distance for quite some time, behind waves, behind the red glow of flames, as Poland disappeared over the horizon.
Why does God allow disaster? Why do some succumb to horrific tragedy while others do not? Our Irish ancestors taught my family that our mortal minds do not know the answer. The Murphys believed then and still believes the world unfolds according to His plan. One day we will understand—understand the greatest calamities and highest glories that can only be accepted in our world today through the power of faith.
Ships of the 1840s were of two types: warships and cargo ships. Sailing ships of that era were not designed exclusively for passenger travel, but rather passengers were freighted as another type of cargo. Still, the Sweden, a three-mast packet ship with sail rigging called “ship rigging,” may have had accommodations for travelers that were better than most other cargo ships.
Patrick and Mary were part of two hundred and sixty-one passengers bound for Boston, all Irish except for three passengers from England. All aboard planned to make America home except for one of the Britons, who traveled to Nova Scotia.
Sweden’s sails fluttered as the crew raised them up.
They left as British subjects of Queen Victoria. They arrived as hopeful Americans (or in the one case, a hopeful Canadian).
The occupations of the men included “labourer” (English spelling), tanner, blacksmith, carpenter, bootmaker, mechanic, distiller, cotton spinner, clothier, bleacher, tailor, and other trades whose entry on the manifest is not decipherable.
The manifest listed Patrick as a “labourer,” but we know from later census records he was a skilled stone mason. Although Mary had many skills, no occupation was listed for her, nor was it for the majority of the women; only three women were listed as having one on the manifest, all as “dressmaker.”
Among those on board were the Carty family: John, age twenty-six, Mary, age twenty-four, Patrick, age twenty-three, Bridget, age twenty-two—all possibly brothers and sisters, yet we do not find their parents on the manifest. Also present were husband and wife Pat and Bridget Fowler, age thirty and twenty-five respectively, and their five-year-old daughter, Mary Fowler. One look into that little girl’s blue eyes told the tale of hardship and perseverance. Many other wonderfully different eyes from all around the world would follow.
Those who saw these huddled masses—these penniless people departing England’s shores—would never guess that they and their descendants would someday become great Americans.
There is no record of anyone dying during this voyage, though death was not an uncommon event in the nineteenth-century transatlantic passage. And although there were indeed two hundred and sixty-one named souls onboard when Sweden left Liverpool—one more was added to the passenger list.
A child was born during the crossing.
Imagine the expectant mother and the father walking onboard Sweden, knowing that the childbirth might take place at sea. Everyone aboard welcomed that child into the world as a good Irish omen.
On that ship, in the middle of the cold North Atlantic, that child was everyone’s immigrant son. He was greeted with merriment. Song. Dance. Drink … Perhaps too much drink! This infant was the grand promise of tomorrow. Patrick and Mary greeted him and thought of their future family.
Imagine his welcoming.
The Sweden’s manifest does not list the boy’s name, and the child is otherwise unknown, but the manifest does list him as an “infant” and “born during the voyage.” A mark (‘) noted he was male. It, most appropriately, recorded his place of origin as the “Atlantic Ocean.” See the last entry below.
But as God revealed the wonder of resplendent life on board that ship, the Irish poor back home were about to starve, including some in Patrick and Mary’s big family. Before they left, Mary and Patrick had heard the locals predict that the coming potato harvest of 1845 would see a promising return after a poor one in 1844.
As we will see, that prediction was cataclysmically wrong.
This is an important reminder that immigrant narratives are a vital part of America’s present and future, not just its past.
John Francis Patrick Murphy traces his family’s history in Americaand encourages others to explore their own histories in his biography Our Immigrants’ Son.
On a rainy day in 1845, two Irish immigrants arrived in Boston tobegin a new life in the promising New World. This is the beginning ofthe Murphy family’s American journey. The author, a direct descendant of these immigrants, explores the events and the values that saw hisancestors through hard times, and that continue to guide the familytoday.
The narrative spotlights three Murphys: Patrick and Mary, who leftIreland in the mid-nineteenth century, and their son Michael, who wasborn and raised in America. Evocative descriptions resurrect thelong-gone places frequented by the hard working Murphys: the modesthomes where they lived so happily, the POW camp where Michael waited out the end of the Civil War, the factory where Michael and his son servedas corporation inspectors for decades. Discussions of relevanthistorical events–including the Great Famine, the callousness of theAmerican Industrial Revolution, and the Civil War–add context to thefamily’s experiences. Plenty of photographs, news clippings, and othermaterials further show what their lives were–or might have been–like,though some such photographs repeat unnecessarily.
As they strove for the better life America offered, the Murphys clung to constants, like their belief in God, and the Merrimack River thatstill powers their original hometown of Lawrence, Massachusetts.
Theseconstants emerge as recurring themes. The use of prose poetry–whichcombines both prose and poetry, both fact and informedfiction–facilitates the emphasis of these topics. The author uses all of the above to highlight different, broader recurring themes: forexample, the mistreatment immigrants always seem to face despite theunquestionable value that their presence and experiences bring to theUnited States. These parallels create a sense of continuity and unitywith the past–as important reminders that immigrant narratives are avital part of America’s present and future, not just its past.
In the final part of the book, Murphy explains his creative processand advises anyone wishing to discover and chronicle their own familyhistory. It’s an insightful addition with useful tips for aspiringwriters and genealogists.
The Murphy clan has now spread across the United States, findingsuccess and happiness in their own ways. But they have not lost theirconnection with the past–nor will they ever, thanks to the author’sdiligent research and devotion to preserving his ancestors’ brave,difficult journey. Our Immigrants’ Son is a genre-blendinghistorical biography about how hard work, strong faith, and plain oldgood luck helped an Irish American family thrive.
Reviewed by Eileen Gonzalez
December 15, 2020
A story of finding out who you are and discovering ways to let your family inspire you.
I read somewhere recently. “It’s been said many times before, but notwo families are alike. Your relatives may be loud and crazy, small andintrospective, totally conventional, or completely unorthodox, but yourfamily is yours. And, no matter what, your family makes up a huge partof who you are.”
As familyplays such an influential role in our lives – our identities, it’s nowonder that people research and study the history of their families. And those who are observant, analytical, and those who are storytellers -well, they can give the rest of insightful looks into just how important a family is.
Maya Angelou said once, “I sustain myself with the love of family.”
Haniel Long took that one step further. “So much of what is best in us isbound up in our love of family, that it remains the measure of ourstability because it measures our sense of loyalty.”
John Francis Patrick Murphy is a storyteller – but in a different kind of way than that title normally details.
He is one of those folks who can envelope his readers with his teachablestyle of writing that is almost conversational. Murphy’s tale here in’Our Immigrants’ Son’ is personal, yet relatable to anyone interested in their own family tree.
Through his own research, Murphy discovered much about his history, and bringsit to a level in which people can find a commonality with him. Littledid he know just how much knowledge he gained would help in living hisown life.
The story of hisIrish ancestry is not only an attractive story full of color, familytradition and a bit of whimsy. Being full of Irish folklore and photos,’Our Immigrants’ Son’ is a rewarding tale that any book club focused onhistory and family would enjoy reading.
Elizabeth Berg wrote, “You are born into your family and your family is born into you. No returns. No exchanges.”
A twist in the story is how Murphy expertly, and with creativity, peppers in faith and Christianity with the genealogy and facts of the time inhistory from which his ancestors came.
Through his writings, and sharing of his personal experience in research,Murphy sets a prime example for his readers and those interested infamily and heritage.
It will be a good book also for collegiate history classes discussing the timeperiod. In fact, I believe it would give students an interesting perspective.
Reviewed by Becky Holland
The time-traveling aspect of this book is only a fraction of what makes Our Immigrants’ Son astounding. The author writes gracefully and modestly. Reading abouthis family and their history was a lovely experience, as one not onlygets to learn the importance of family, but the author also takes thereader on a ride of how things have changed between the 19th century and the 21st century. As one reads on, they appreciate time and thetransition the world has undergone. The author included bits of worldhistory in his book, enlightening every reader on important world events such as world wars, and the quest for independence for differentcountries and communities.
Author John Francis Patrick Murphy may have spoken as an Irishimmigrant, but the story he told can be related by every immigrant inAmerica. The challenges immigrants faced back in the day are not toodifferent from the challenges immigrants face today. The pressure to get decent jobs, settle and assimilate with the American society is still a difficult process for some. By reading John Murphy’s book, one gets tounderstand why some immigrants are not too quick to open up andimmigrants work hard are sometimes ignored by their host countriesdespite the work they put in. Throughout the book, the reader learnsabout tolerance and why you should be kind to people despite theirbackgrounds.
I liked that the author divided the book into two parts; the firstfocusing on his family’s story and the second talking about how you canwrite a great family story of your own. In both parts, the authormaintains the same gentle tone that makes one want to read more. Thereare nuggets of wisdom in both parts and the readers get exposed to theauthor’s most intimate parts of his life. Reading about Irish people was a pleasant experience. Getting to know John Murphy’s culture on apersonal level, their Christian faith, and how they lived makes one feel like they are part of the author’s story.
Some of the most notable elements in the book are the author’s vividdescription and the images attached. The pictorial evidence gives one an idea of how things were back then and why it is good to embrace changeas much as we appreciate the past. John Murphy’s vivid description iswhat makes the reading enjoyable. The author knows how to expound ondetails while talking about a person, place, or event. His explanationmakes the reading clear and more charming.
Through the text in the book, John Murphy subconsciously tells everyreader to preserve their history. There is nothing as beautiful asreading, learning, or documenting your roots whether you are animmigrant or otherwise. The information recorded today will help futuregenerations learn about the past, maintain the rich and diverse cultures we have, and also help them improve on where the ancestors failed. Iimmensely enjoyed reading Our Immigrant’s Son.
Reviewed by Aaron Washington
Hollywood Book Reviews